Obedience and Conformity

Psychology 101: The 101 Ideas, Concepts and Theories that Have Shaped Our World - Adrian Furnham 2021

Obedience and Conformity

The American ideal, after all, is that everyone should be as much alike as possible. (James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son, 1955)

Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation. (Oscar Wilde, De Profundis, 1881)

Why do people comply, conform and obey the orders of others? Obedience and conformity are not the same, and differ in the following four ways:

Hierarchy: conformity regulates the behaviour of equal status subjects whereas obedience links one status to another.

Imitation: conformity is imitation, whereas obedience is not.

Explicitness: in obedience the prescription for action (an order) is explicit, whereas in conformity the requirement of going along with the group is implicit.

Voluntarism: because conformity is a response to implicit pressure the subject interprets his/her own behaviour as voluntary.

However, the obedience situation is publicly defined as one devoid of voluntarism and thus the person can fall back on the public definition of the situation as the full explanation of his/her action.

There are two very famous conformity experiments in psychology. The first was called the auto-kinetic study. People sat in a completely darkened room but could see a completely stationary pinpoint of light. They were asked to call out if they saw it moving. Stooges in the room cried things like ’yes, slightly to the left’; then ’me too, there is definite movement’. But it was completely stationary. The question was: how many others claimed to see it move following the cries of the stooges?

A more famous study required people to join a small group of what they thought were people like themselves but they were actually experimental stooges. They were told they had to judge whether a set of lines were longer or shorter than each other, but soon all the group gave an obvious wrong answer. The question is: whether, when and why did the real subject conform? The study then manipulated many variables and found a number of factors that influenced the amount of conformity.

1 Task Difficulty & Ambiguousness: The less the conformity with ambiguous stimuli, the more subjects look to others as sources of information, especially opinion and abilities that have reference to social reality.

2 Nature of Stimuli: It worked with different judgements such as metronome clicks, attitude items, arithmetic problems — and there were many differences.

3 Source Certainty: The more certain you are in the source’s ability, the more conformity.

4 Group Size: Some evidence that it does not matter how many people are involved (two, four or six), other evidence for a curvilinear crucial ’threshold’ of four. Real-life, bigger groups may pose greater threat.

5 Uncertainty of Group Judgement: One dissenter to break unanimity has a considerable effect on group judgement. But it can happen to a lesser degree with an extreme dissenter who responds even more indirectly than the group.

6 Group Composition & Attraction: Homogeneity is important. Males conform less to mixed groups, than male-only groups. If the situation demands unanimity the person attracted to the group conforms more; but if the group demands the right answer, they will not.

7 Group Acceptance: Accepted, more secure, members conform less.

The most dramatic experiment in psychology in the twentieth century was that of Stanley Milgram (1974) whose book caused a storm. What the study showed was that nice, normal, middle-class Americans were prepared, for a $4 fee, to shock to death an innocent man who wasn’t too hot on memorizing paired words.

Milgram told the person they were there to take part in an experiment on human learning. Their particular job consisted of delivering electric shock to a learner — a jolly middle-aged man — each time he made an error in learning associations between paired words.

The experimental sessions began innocuously enough, the learner got some of the pairs right, but he soon made an error and was ’given’ a mild 15-volt shock. At 75 volts, the learner grunted in pain. At 150 volts the ’learner’ screamed, ’Experimenter get me out of here! I won’t be in the experiment anymore!’

The learner continued to cry out in pain, with his cries increasing in intensity, becoming agonized screams once the shocks reached 270 volts. The experimenter and ’teacher’ were now engaged in torture!

At 300 volts, the learner shouted in desperation that he would no longer respond to the word pairs. The experimenter — our, cold, steely authority figure — matter-of-factly informed the subject to treat no response as if it were an error, and to go on administering shocks.

Twenty-six of the 40 male volunteers who took part in the experiment continued to the end; exactly the same number of men as women continued to the end. The fully obedient subjects stopped administering the 450-volt shocks to the victim only when the experimenter told them to stop.


Proximity to victim

Subjects obey the closer they are to a suffering victim.

Proximity to authority

Subjects obey less the further away the authority who gives command is.

Institutional setting

Conducting Milgram’s obedience experiments in a run-down office building away from Yale University reduced obedience only slightly.

Conformity pressures

Obedient peers increase subject’s obedience; rebellious peers greatly reduce obedience.

Role of person giving

People obey others most when others are perceived to be legitimate.


In Milgram’s studies, subjects generally obeyed the experiment but did not obey other subjects.

Personality traits

In Milgram’s studies, assessed traits correlated weakly with obedience.


Milgram found no difference between men and women in their average levels of obedience.

Cultural differences

Cross-cultural replication show some variation across cultures, but obedience in Milgram-type studies tends to be high regardless of culture.

Attitudinal factors

Religious people are more likely to obey in Milgram-type experiments.

Ideological factors

Attitudes towards individual responsibility and towards obedience influence whether people hold individuals responsible for crimes of obedience.


Asch, S.E. (1952b). Social psychology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Blass, T. (1991). ’Understanding behavior in the Milgram obedience experiment: The role of personality, situations and their interactions’. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 60 (3): 398—413.

Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to Authority. New York: Harper & Row.